Category Archives: Kathy M. Newman

60 Years Later: On the Waterfront and Working-Class Studies

For most Americans On the Waterfront is not a politically controversial film—it’s simply one of the best films of all time. Many know that the film’s director Elia Kazan did something shady and some might even know that he testified against his former Communist allies at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC). An even smaller group might know that after testifying Kazan took out a full page New York Times ad to justify his decision.

But for the American left, Kazan is one of the worst traitors in American cultural history. When progressive scholars write about On the Waterfront, they draw parallels between Kazan, who betrayed his friends in order to clear his name (and to keep working in film), and Terry Malloy [Marlon Brando], who betrayed the members of his mob crew in order to clear his conscience of the wrong he had done in their name.

Kazan has done much to fuel this interpretation of the film. In his 1988 autobiography, A Life, Kazan explained the parallel between his naming names and Terry Malloy’s testimony before the Waterfront Commission: “When Brando, at the end [of On the Waterfront], yells as Lee Cobb, the mob boss, ’I’m glad what I done—you hear me?—glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.”

But if we reduce On the Waterfront to Kazan’s personal story we lose sight of the real working-class social formation out of which this film was born and overlook the genuine progressive political commitments that led both Kazan and Schulberg to make On the Waterfront despite great obstacles.

The social formation of the postwar docks was rooted in the hiring process known as the “shape up.” It was estimated that there were half as many jobs as there were men who lined up for them every morning. Arthur Miller, who wrote several plays about the waterfront himself, described the “shape up” as he witnessed it in the late 1940s:

I stood around with longshoremen huddling in doorways in rain and snow on Columbia Street facing the piers, waiting for the hiring boss, on whose arrival they surged forward and formed up in a semicircle to attract his pointing finger and the numbered brass checks that guaranteed a job for the day. After distributing the checks to his favorites, who had quietly paid him off, the boss often found a couple left over and in his generosity tossed them into the air over the little crowd. In a frantic scramble, the men would tear at each other’s hands, sometimes getting into bad fights. Their cattle like acceptance of this humiliating process struck me as an outrage, even more sinister than the procedure itself. It was though they had lost the mere awareness of hope.

On the Waterfront began as a response to these working conditions—not as a vehicle for Kazan’s revenge. The film began in 1951, before the HUAC hearings, with Budd Schulberg, a self-described Hollywood “prince”—a writer who was the son of movie mogul B. P. Schulberg. Schulberg had never met Kazan when he was asked by a small film company, Monticello, to write a screenplay based on Malcolm Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning journalistic series, Crime on the Waterfront, which had been published in the New York Sun.

Schulberg became obsessed with the waterfront after Johnson introduced him to one of Johnson’s main sources: Father “Pete” Corridan, whom Schulberg described as “a rangy, fast-talking, chain-smoking West Side [priest] who talked the darndest language I ever heard, combining the gritty vocabulary of the longshoremen with mob talk, the statistical findings of a trained economist and the teachings of Christ.” Schulberg continued to obsess about the docks even after Monticello folded and the project was declared dead. After the publicity surrounding Kazan’s HUAC testimony, Schulberg wrote Kazan a letter expressing sympathy for the “vilification he was undergoing,” and, later, after they met for lunch, Kazan proposed they work together on a film about the Trenton Six—six African American youth who had been convicted of killing a white shop owner. Schulberg had other ideas: why shouldn’t the two of them work together on his waterfront film? Kazan agreed.

Though Howard Lawson, a blacklisted screenwriter, described On the Waterfront as the ultimate Hollywood film, the film was quashed by Hollywood more than once. In 1952, when Schulberg and Kazan tried to get Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox, to produce the film, Zanuck told them, “what you’ve written is exactly what the American public doesn’t want to see.” Finally, in late 1952, when they were depressed and about the to junk the film, a washed-up producer, Sam Spiegel, agreed to bankroll it. Filming was completed in 1953, and On the Waterfront was set to debut in the spring of 1954—just in time, everyone hoped, to help the honest dockworkers win an election against the real life “Johnny Friendly” types who controlled the docks.

Throughout the filmmaking, Kazan was inspired by Schulberg’s commitment to the dockworkers’ cause, and he saw Schulberg’s engagement with the subject matter as “passionate and true.” Kazan acknowledged that “Budd had made himself….a champion of humanity on that strip of shore.”

What about Kazan’s engagement? In a much less quoted passage from his autobiography, Kazan explained that his attachment to On the Waterfront came from a desire to show his old lefty enemies that he was the true progressive when it came to representing the working class: “I was…determined to show my old ‘comrades,’ those who’d attacked me so viciously, that there was an anti-Communist left, and that we were the true progressives and they were not. I’d come back to fight.”

This quote points to another parallel between Kazan and Terry Malloy: they were both fighters. In the final scene of On the Waterfront, Malloy is beaten nearly to a pulp by Johnny Friendly’s goons. He can barely walk. When his girlfriend Edie (Eva Saint Marie) tries to help him, Father Barry (Karl Malden) waves her off. In 1955, the radical British filmmaker, Lindsay Anderson, argued that this scene is “fascist.” Malloy, through violence, has simply become the new de facto “Johnny Friendly,” just another tough guy who is ready to rise up and exploit his brethren.

Anderson’s argument shows how judging Kazan for his political betrayal can lead to a misreading of the film. The closing scene isn’t fascist. It’s a scene that uses the language of fighting— specifically boxing. Malloy, a former boxer, is down for the count. If Edie or the priest helps him get up, then he can’t continue to fight. In this metaphorical boxing round he’ll be disqualified. And so he gets up, on his own, which means that the round is over but the match is not. He will live to fight again. Finally, in this scene, Malloy has become the contender he always knew he could be.

If you get a chance to see On the Waterfront this month, in honor of its 60th anniversary, think about this. As much as Terry Malloy might represent Kazan, ratting on his former friends, it is also true that Kazan and Schulberg were trying to rat on capitalism, to call out American business practices as corrupt, and to argue that something drastic needed to done to reform the docks. What Kazan did was wrong, but what happened to American dockworkers in this period, arguably, was even worse. Though the bitterness against Kazan has lingered lo these many years, we in working-class studies should reclaim On the Waterfront as one of the important texts for understanding what happened to American labor in the postwar period. We do so not to redeem Kazan, but to honor the workers that he and Schulberg were trying to represent.

Kathy M. Newman

Serfs for Hire: Learning about Labor from Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones

At first glance HBO’s new series, Silicon Valley, doesn’t seem to have much in common with Game of Thrones. Silicon Valley is a comedy in which men (only) vie for immortality behind computer screens, while Game of Thrones is a brutal drama in which men and women vie for immorality on the battlefield, while despots remove the heads of those who usually deserve better. Yet both follow the troop movements of those who seek freedom from tyranny, and, in the process, they reveal something about the capricious nature of justice and even offer some lessons about power in the workplace.

It could be argued that we will not learn much about the serfs of the 21st century by analyzing Silicon Valley. A 2013 survey found that the average salary in the tech industry is $87,811. But even though tech workers earn much more than the average American worker, Silicon Valley critiques the instability of tech labor in the neoliberal era, and it also lobs brickbats at the totalitarian nature of corporate power.

The long suffering hero of Silicon Valley is the honorable Richard the anxious-hearted (comedian Thomas Middleditch), a bug-eyed, curly haired awkward boy/man/genius who has invented a way for audio and video files to be compressed at high speeds with no loss of quality. Richard is awkward with girls and pukes when he is stressed out. This happens frequently, as the two most eccentric and capricious head honchos in Silicon Valley, Gavin Belson, head of the fictional company Hooli, and Peter Gregory, a venture capitalist, vie for Richard’s algorithmic treasure. After much agonizing, Richard turns down Gavin’s $10 million offer to buy his code and instead accepts Peter’s much smaller offer of $200,000 in seed money in order to to retain control of his company, Pied Piper, and his algorithm.

But from episode to episode, Richard and his merry men are not sure if they will be able to keep their funding, their jobs, or the house they live in. They are serfs of the realm ruled by eccentric, narcissistic titans. For all of their privilege, they act out the drama of contingent labor. For all of the hoopla surrounding their intelligence, and for all of the money invested in their potential, they can lose their funding at the whim of their overlords.  And without this funding they could lose their jobs, their health care, and their homes as well as their intellectual property.

Even when they have jobs, they don’t always have control over their labor. When Richard’s friend best friend Big Head is hired away by Hooli, Gavin learns that Big Head doesn’t have the knowledge to help them reverse engineer Richard’s complicated code. So Big Head is kept “on contract,” but taken “off project.” He finds others of his kind on the roof of the Hooli building—barbecuing stuff, tossing footballs, and trying to think of ways to kill time.

The tech workers on Silicon Valley do not control their destiny. Episode six makes this point in a bizarre story line involving a self-driving car that is programmed to drive to billionaire investor Peter’s private island. Instead, it takes the business manager of Pied Piper onto a container ship, leaving him trapped at sea, surrounded only by automated forklifts.

The serfs of Silicon Valley are dependent on the whims of bizarre and wicked rulers like Gavin Belsen and Peter Gregory. Do such characters really exist? Absolutely. Silicon Valley is seen in the tech industry as a roman à clef—a thinly veiled satire of some of the very real and very creepy people who run the tech world. And a recent legal settlement reveals what we have long suspected: that many of today’s tech overlords have conspired to keep their employees’ salaries as low as possible. As a US district judge ruled last month, Apple, Google, and Intel, to name a few, are guilty of wage fixing and driving down salaries by illegally colluding not to poach each other’s employees.

Silicon Valley’s anti-poaching conspiracy violates the Sherman Anti-Trust act, which states that any conspiracy that restrains trade or commerce is illegal and can be punished by fine, imprisonment, or both. But the practice is old, and, possibly, even medieval. A 1364 British ordinance referring to shoe cobblers read: Masters are forbidden to poach workers from other members of the craft.” In this most recent lawsuit, tech industry plaintiffs, who filed this suit in 2001, were seeking 3 billion in damages, but have settled for $324 million, which averages out to about $4,000 per plaintiff—a moral victory but a financial defeat.

Should we feel sorry for the tech serfs of Silicon Valley? Maybe not. But should we see in their labor situation something of the precariousness of the rest of us in the 99%? Should we see in their experiences some similarities to the working conditions of contingent academic faculty; of low-wage fast food, Walmart, and healthcare workers; of blamed and battered public schools teachers; of undocumented workers; and of indentured college graduates?

We should. And that’s why we should also heed the lessons of Game of Thrones. We should build an army of the 99%, employ the cunning of the imp, the tech savvy of the geeks, and the moral ferocity of Brienne of Tarth. It would be cool if we could get some wolves and some dragons, too. United, and armed with the knowledge of our true worth, are we not more powerful than the 1% that sits upon the Iron Throne?

Kathy M. Newman

Still Learning from the Scholarship Boy

2014 is still young, but we have lost a handful of British working-class scholars and activists who have been pivotal for working-class studies and politics, starting with cultural studies legend Stuart Hall, who died in February. In March, Tim Strangleman noted that we lost two British politicians who have been especially important voices for the working class, Tony Benn and Bob Crow. And in April we lost Richard Hoggart, the infamous Leeds “scholarship boy” who was orphaned at eight but managed to study and work his way into an elite British academic class. He was one of the original founders of the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies and his important 1957 work, The Uses of Literacy, is one of the founding texts of working-class studies.

Richard Herbert “Bert” Hoggart was born in Leeds in 1918, where his father, a veteran of Boer war, died just two years later. Hoggart was raised by his mother until he was 8, at which point his mother died of tuberculosis. At Hoggart’s mother’s funeral, an aunt quipped that “orphanages are very good nowadays,” but fortunately for Hoggart, he was sent to live with his grandmother.

Though Hoggart failed math, he eventually won a scholarship to Leeds University.  He served in North Africa during WWII, and after the war he applied for nine assistant professorships and one job in the John Lewis department store. Eight universities turned him down, but the University of Hull hired him, and Hoggart he stayed there for 13 years. After an influential book on W.H. Auden in 1951 and The Uses of Literacy in 1957, Hoggart started the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies in 1964 and hired Stuart Hall as his deputy director.

Hoggart’s legacy is important for us, because without Hoggart, it could be argued, there would be no working-class studies. The Uses of Literacy, exemplifies some of the core ideas and approaches at the heart of our field, starting with the idea of taking the working class and its culture seriously. As Sue Owens notes, The Uses of Literacy, “put the working class on the cultural map, not as objects of middle-class scrutiny but as people with a culture and a point of view of their own.”

According to Stuart Hall, Hoggart defined culture as “how working-class people spoke and thought, what language and common assumptions about life they shared, in speech and action, what social attitudes informed their daily practice, what moral categories they deployed, even if only aphoristically, to make judgments about their own behaviour and that of others —including, of course, how they brought all this to bear on what they read, saw and sang.”  Hall’s summary would serve as a good description of much of the work now being done within working-class studies.

In The Uses of Literacy, Hoggart also provides a blueprint for the working-class academic memoir, the kind of writing that acknowledges that those who are born into working-class families but ascend to academia never completely shed a certain psychic pain and sense of dislocation. Hoggart wrote about how the scholarship boy is cut off from his parents and his community by the community’s perception that “E’s bright.” This kind work today is represented at its best by Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America and the essays in This Fine Place so Far from Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class.

Hoggart’s work seems especially relevant in post-economic collapse America. While the Britain of his youth was terribly class bound, perhaps we are nearly as class bound today in the US, where class mobility is at an all time low. And, though class mobility was a necessity for Hoggart personally, it was also a sore spot. He hated prejudice against working-class people, but he did not celebrate the absorption of working-class culture into mainstream, Americanized consumer culture. He hated rock n roll, 1950s British “milk bars” (what in the US we called the soda counter in a drug store), and Hollywood films.

Oddly, Hoggart was at once a cultural conservative, privileging literature and literary criticism, and an institutional radical. In founding the Birmingham Center for Cultural Studies, he cleared the way for literature’s decline as the primary focus of English departments. According to the British writer Michael Bailey, “Hoggart argued that ‘the methods of literary criticism and analysis’ ought to be made ‘relevant to the better understanding of all levels of writing and much else in popular culture, and of the way people responded to them.’”

Though Hoggart was an institutional radical, he was not an activist. He claimed that he was different from E.P. Thompson in that he tended to “be a bit leery of people making public causes in the streets.” He wasn’t a public protester, and he had strong feelings about those who were: “The hairs rise on the back of my neck when I see a group of teachers chanting.” He believed he could make his greatest contribution as a writer.

In this sense, Hoggart has made an important contribution indeed, with such books as Teaching Literature (1963), Higher Education and Cultural Change (1966), Contemporary Cultural Studies (1966), Speaking to Each Other (1970), Only Connect: On Culture and Communication (1972), An English Temper (1982), and most recently, Mass Media in a Mass Society: Myth and Reality (2004).

Interestingly, Hoggart argued that the common thread in his written work was the idea that everyone has the right to be heard: “Their common source is a sense of the importance of the right of each of us to speak out about how we see life, the world; and so the right to have access to the means by which that capacity to speak may be gained. The right, also, to try to reach out to speak to others, not to have that impulse inhibited by social barriers, maintained by those in power politically or able to exercise power in other ways.”

Hoggart is now gone, just a few years shy of what would have been his 100th birthday (in 2018). But how many of us, and how many of our working-class students, today have a voice because this tenacious scholarship boy dared to transcend his class and then continued to fight for the right of working-class people to maintain and study their own way of life?

Kathy M. Newman and Sherry Linkon

 

Which Side Is Culture On?

Last week I got a call from a reporter at The Guardian asking me to weigh in on the newest anti-union salvo from the Target corporation: a creepy, personal, direct-to-camera attack on unions, delivered by two red polo-shirt wearing Target “team members” (were these actually SAG member actors?) who talked in a chatty and informal way about how unions would destroy the “open door” policies, flexibility, and pleasant working environment already enjoyed by every Target employee. This new Target video has already drawn considerable attention, earning media reports in Salon and Gawker to name a few.

This Target video got me thinking: what is the role of cultural artifacts—art, film, and music—in contributing to attitudes about labor? How do cultural objects impact individual union drives, and how does anti-union propaganda impact wider culture attitudes about labor?

I am a professor of a literature and a cultural historian, so I am inclined to think that culture is powerful, and that anti-union culture has played a role in the decline of union membership we are all suffering from today. At the same time I wonder how much of the decline of unionization is more the result of labor policies and law—especially anti-labor laws passed by state and federal governing bodies because of the powerful lobbying by the wealthiest oligarchs in the land?

We often think that anti-union sentiment peaked in the 1950s, when McCarthyism was in full bloom, unions were purging their radicals, and labor/management cooperation was all the rage. But Nelson Lichtenstein assures us that for the last hundred years and more that the union has been portrayed as boss, bully, and thug.

cartoonHere’s a political cartoon from 1914 that implies that AFL demands were violently military and aimed at the very heart of American democracy.

But during the Depression, there was in upsurge in popular cultural support for labor—what Michael Denning has called the Cultural Front. The 1930s and the 1940s saw an outpouring of pro-labor culture, from the positive depictions of the taxi-cab strike in Waiting for Lefty, to proletarian novels like Christ in Concrete and In Dubious Battle, to the pro-labor film The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and, of course, the rise of the pro-labor folk song tradition with artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White.

What about the rest of the last century? As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, the American working class has long been a “silenced majority”—mostly invisible in news reports, mass-market magazines, films and television programs alike. Roseanne Barr, who starred in one of the most popular working class sitcoms in TV history (Rosanne), said that: “Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing.” Other scholars agree, such as Pepi Leistyna who shows that working-class people have been much maligned on TV, Ken Margolis who argues that unions are “tarnished” on the silver screen, and William J. Puette, who writes that the media views unions through a jaundiced eye.

While I agree that unions are usually portrayed negatively in popular culture, and especially in film, I think the positive relationship between labor and mass culture has, at times, been ignored or forgotten. Mass culture is profit driven, so we suspect that culture always endorses whatever ideology is best for capitalism. But culture produced for the masses is complicated, because in order to appeal to working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the mass audience, culture must represent some ideas and issues that are important to that audience.

In my current book project (Striking Images: Labor on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s), I argue that there were more positive and realistic representations of unions and workers on film and television in the 1950s than we remember. The new mass medium of television sometimes depicted labor even more positively than postwar film. Teleplays like Marty (1953), A Man is Ten Feet Tall (1955), and Clash by Night (1956) had a more radical edge than their film counterparts (Marty, 1955, Edge of the City, 1957, Clash by Night, 1952). Even Ralph Kramden, on an episode of The Honeymooners, staged a rent strike.

What about the present? A recent poll shows that 51% of Americans approve of unions. While 51% may not seem like a lot, this number has increased 10 percentage points in the last two years. Have cultural factors, like the Occupy movement, the national living wage campaign, and Robert Reich’s powerful documentary Inequality for All, helped Americans to view labor more sympathetically? Have they won out, despite intensified anti-union campaigns, with films like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down,which argue that teacher unions have ruined American public education, the anti-UAW campaign launched in Tennessee, not by Volkswagen but by Southern Republicans, and the continued press by the national “Right to Work” campaign?.

Perhaps culture isn’t on one side or another. Perhaps it is the battlefield itself. The skirmishes are everywhere. Though Republicans helped to tank the union drive at Volkswagen last month, P-Diddy and Danny Glover are helping Nissan workers in Jackson, Mississippi in their current union drive. In 2012, when Scott Walker’s anti-union policies were on the national stage, the Irish punk band Dropkick Murphys refused to allow Wisconsin Republicans to use their song “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” in Republican shows and videos. Recently in Pittsburgh, the rapper Jasiri-X wrote a crowd-energizing song for the Make it Our UMPC campaign called “People Over Profits.”

At the same time, in our creation, enjoyment and promotion of pro-union culture we cannot blind ourselves to the crippling role that labor law plays in the difficulties faced by unions, union organizers, and the tens of thousands of workers who want to join unions but cannot (yet) at Walmart, fast food restaurants, and Target. The worst thing about the Target video is not its slick production values or its horrible, falsehood-laden script, but the fact that it is perfectly legal for Target to force all of its employees to watch it on company time.

Kathy M. Newman

Sing Out! Lessons from the Extraordinary Life of Pete Seeger

Like thousands of fellow Americans, I have spent the last week listening to Pete Seeger’s recordings, poring over his many obits, and inhaling Alec Wilkinson’s wonderful short biography, The Protest Singer: An Intimate Portrait of Pete Seeger. With this work behind me, I offer seven lessons that those of us committed to working-class justice and working-class studies can glean from Seeger’s extraordinary life.

Scholars of working-class culture have a lot to offer working-class movements. Some of Seeger’s first paid work was for the legendary folk music authority, John Lomax. As Wilkinson notes in his bio of Seeger, each week Seeger listened to hundreds of records at the Library of Congress—“English and Scotch Irish ballads kept alive in the South, rural blues, farmer songs, widow’s laments, millworker songs, soldier songs, sea shanties, slave songs, tramp songs, and coal miner songs.” By the end of Seeger’s time in the archive, he had flagged a collection of protest songs that he wanted to make into a book, but “his father thought it too controversial.”But soon enough Seeger found someone like himself, Lee Hays, who had “compiled a book of union songs.” Hays and his roommate, Mill Lampell, along with Woody Guthrie, became the nucleus of Seeger’s first band: The Almanacs.

Embrace the relationship between music and social movements. Seeger believed that if you could get a crowd to join in a song, you could get a crowd to join in a movement. Like his father, Charles Seeger, who argued that “to make music is the essential thing—to listen to it is an accessory,” Pete Seeger believed that song brought the individual out of the self and into something larger: “I’ve never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in—as a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it’s kind of a religion with me. Participation. That’s what’s going to save the human race.” Of course, Seeger could have chosen other vehicles for participation, but he believed that there was something special about songs. “Songs,” he explained, “are a way of binding people to a cause.”

It’s OK to be middle class. Seeger came from a family of “doctors, shopkeepers, and intellectuals.” His parents were also classically trained musicians who divorced when he was young. But even Seeger’s step-mother encouraged him, noticing that he had a special talent for “song leading.” Seeger went to a boarding school in Connecticut, and, later, Harvard, which he did not like. After Harvard, Seeger made the transition from scholar of working-class culture to maker/participant. The Almanacs were so named because every working-class home had two books: a bible for the next life and an almanac for this one. Seeger’s next band, The Weavers, was named for a play by German author Gerhart Hauptmann about a group of Silesian (now Poland) weavers who rebelled against the mechanization of their craft in the 1840s. Seeger, who was not from a working-class family, was a champion of workers, workers’ folk traditions, unions, the labor movement, and the dignity of work. Moreover, he was embraced by workers wherever he went, from the CIO struggles in Pittsburgh and Detroit in the 1940s, to the postal workers organizing against the hiring of non-union workers in 2014.

Make stuff with your own hands. On the other hand, perhaps, Seeger might have been a voluntary member of the working class. In the 1940s, he bought a piece of land next to the Hudson River for $1700.There he built his own log cabin. It took him several tries to get the giant stone fireplace right, but as he was finishing it he placed a few of the rocks thrown at him in the infamous Paul Robeson/Peekskill riots in the structure as a reminder. To build furniture for the house, Wilkinson writes, Seeger scavenged the wood from abandoned packing crates in New York City on his way home from singing gigs. By mastering the world with his hands, Seeger was able to connect the future of the human race to the future of the planet: “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

You have to choose sides, but you can have as many causes as you like. Seeger embraced every progressive American cause, from the labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, to environmentalism, the anti-war movement, the AIDs epidemic, and even the 2011 Occupy Movement. There were songs that explained how to negotiate and use a union to improve your life on the job (Talking Union Blues) and songs about union towns, their smog and their devotion to the CIO (Pittsburgh). There were songs about how to build stuff with your own hands (If I had a Hammer) and songs about how to keep hope in the face of racial oppression (We Shall Overcome). There were songs about heroic and legendary black workers (John Henry) and songs about women union organizers (Union Maid) and songs about how America belongs to all of us (This Land is Our Land). There were songs about the Hudson river, which he was instrumental in cleaning up (Sailing Up my Dirty Stream), and songs about the Vietnam war (Waist Deep in the Big Muddy), and even songs condemning Stalin (Big Joe Blues).

You can have a long, productive life if you do not define your success according to the market. Seeger famously testified in front of HUAC in 1955, refusing to answer any questions that violated his right to religion, free speech, and association. He has jokingly called this moment a “relief,” because the fame he was experiencing with The Weavers was overwhelming him. By contrast, for most blacklisted artists, the 1950s were a nightmare. Some betrayed their former friends and comrades, others died from the stress. Some left the country, some wrote under false names, and many languished without a steady livelihood for years. Seeger was undaunted by more than a decades’ worth of rebuff from HUAC, anti-communists who canceled his performance contracts and picketed his concerts, and TV executives who refused to let him perform on television. Seeger simply kept singing, accepting invitations from any group that would have him, year after year, until mainstream American culture finally accepted Seeger’s unique sound.

Think small. Perhaps you are a union organizer, trying to get a little more justice for your members. Perhaps you are a graduate student writing about worker struggles, or worker culture. Perhaps you have a bit of talent on an instrument, and you perform for money or just gather with friends to raise your voices in unison. Whatever you are doing, no matter how small it might seem, it matters. Seeger tells us: “Too many things can go wrong when they get big.” Instead, he insists, “The world will be solved by millions of small things.”

Kathy M. Newman

Reading Capital: Books that Shaped Work in America

I teach American literature and media history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and for many years I have taught a course called Capital Fictions—a class in which we examine the ways in which literature shaped, and was shaped by, the US economy at the turn-of-the-last-century. Though I never teach all of the same novels twice, we often read The Jungle, Sister Carrie, House of Mirth, and William J. Weldon’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. Of course, as a Marxist/Feminist/Public School Activist at Carnegie Mellon University, I often feel like an outlier—a radical humanist on Andrew Carnegie’s 21st century techno-robotic campus.

So I was pleased, and rather surprised, when I saw that the U.S. Department of Labor—in honor of its one-hundred-year anniversary—is assembling a list of books that shaped American ideas about work. DOL officials, after seeing a 2012 “Books that Shaped America” exhibition at the Library of Congress, were inspired to make a similar call for books about work in order to emphasize the “significant role published works have played in the shaping American workers and workplaces.”

In drawing attention to the DOL’s project on our blog, I am falling into the public relations trap expertly laid by Carl Fillichio, the senior advisor for public affairs and communications at the U.S. Department of Labor. While his book project seems progressive on the face of it, it has also been great public relations, as the mainstream media has done more than a dozen stories on the DOL’s project. Fillichio himself is a capitalist intellectual, coming to the DOL from Lehman brothers, where he was a senior vice president in charge of promoting the firm’s “thought leadership” and philanthropy.

The list of books that shaped American labor is long (102 so far) and eclectic, featuring such classics from children’s literature as Richard Scarry’s Busytown and Doreen Cronin’s radical story of barnyard animals that go on strike, Click, Clack, Moo. Some of my “Capital Fictions” are there, including The Jungle and Sister Carrie. Louisa May Alcott’s book, Little Women, is there (perhaps an odd choice, unless, like me, you decided to pursue the profession of WOMAN WRITER after reading it), along with the poetic Let us Now Praise Famous Men, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. In addition to some radical works there are some classics that staunchly defend capitalism, including Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, William Bennet’s The Book of Virtues, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.

It is worth asking how books like these have shaped our ideas about work. Take Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser. This novel gives us the perspective a young woman, Carrie Meeber, who comes from a small Midwest town to the booming city of Chicago in the late 1800s. Carrie tires quickly of factory work, and we see her struggle to find and keep a job. But then we chart her good fortune as she lucks into a career on the stage. She ends the novel a Broadway celebrity—successful, but still unsatisfied. The novel makes my students wonder: what is the secret to happiness? Is it hard work? Is it good fortune? Is it the ability to buy pretty things? Or is it relationships, education, and a search for deeper meaning?

Another classic on the list is also about turn-of-the-last century Chicago, The Jungle. My students recoil at the story—so grisly it is hard to believe that everything that happens in the novel could happen to a single family. A powerful worker, Jurgis, is brought down by injury and prison time; his strong friend and relative, Marija, is reduced to prostitution after many hard years in the packing plants; Jurgis’s youngest relatives become haggard, and, eventually die from factory work, and Ona, Jurgis’s wife, is raped by her boss and later dies in childbirth. But the students find themselves immersed in Sinclair’s world, and they respond to it with intelligence. When I let them pursue creative assignments, as I did this last fall, one student made a brilliant version of Monopoly based on The Jungle, and another student made a movie trailer for the novel that emphasized the dramatic sweep of the plot.

My students at CMU are from privileged backgrounds, and they often enter the classroom cynical about the plight of workers in the present and uniformed about workers in the past. But I find that through the reading of stories they become more open and more critical—of both the past and the present. Stories like Sister Carrie and The Jungle help to nurture their empathy, give them deeper understandings of place, and allow them to dwell in different times.

What do you think should be on the list? The project is accepting suggestions for additions to its list.

I hope you will agree that we need stories about work in order to understand what work means to us today and what it has meant to us in the past. We also need these stories so can decide what work will mean—and be—in the future. As Karl Marx (none of whose books are yet on the list at the DOL) reminds us, “the point is not merely to understand the world, but to change it.”

Kathy M. Newman

Holiday Steals: Finding the Revolutionary Spirit at the Mall?

I hate shopping malls, but I found myself in one recently, on a family outing to see Disney’s new mega-hit Frozen. But then Frozen was sold out, and so we found ourselves actually shopping at a shopping mall.

I was walking past Wet Seal, a teenage clothing retailer that sells cheap trendy threads to girls and very, very young women. The name is particularly grotesque— suggestive of sex, or, at the very least, something slimy and endangered.

As I passed the store, I saw something that made me stop so hard and so quickly that my sister-in-law almost ran me over: an in-store advertisement featuring a woman against a red background, with her hand cupped out from her mouth, and the phrase “HOLIDAY STEALS” coming out of her mouth in rigid, blocky letters, framed in the shape of a megaphone and pointing towards the store. Wet SealI knew the instant I saw it that it was an homage to the Russian constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko—a riff on his advertisement for books (the original reads “Lengiz, books in all branches of knowledge”). Rodchenko created the ad in 1924 and the woman cupping her hand to yell was Lilya Brik—whom Pablo Naruda called “the muse of the Russian avant-garde.”

RodchenkoRodchenko’s ad, one of the most iconic designs from one of the most revolutionary art movements in world history, was now being used to hail customers as they lumbered through the mall. As one of my facebook friends commented, after I posted the images side by side, the Wet Seal ad was “the very definition of irony.”

We could read this bizarre Soviet style Wet Seal campaign in three ways. The first is the easiest. It could be nothing more than a rip-off—the ultimate pilfering by the capitalist establishment of the revolutionary spirit of early Soviet communist artists. A gross injustice to Rodchenko as well as to the movement he has come to represent.

The second possibility, and this I suspect is closest to what actually happened, is that some Wet Seal designer, fresh out of graduate school, decided to try something cool s/he had learned about Russian Constructivist design and thought it would be a funny wink to folks like me, who were either design hounds or revolutionary art historians or both.

But the final interpretation, and the one I am most partial to, is to read this Wet Seal campaign as a slip of the capitalist unconscious, which in the course of trying to sell things we do not need taps into our desire for real revolution, for real social and economic change. I find it interesting, for example, that the Wet Seal poster heralds “HOLIDAY STEALS” and not “HOLIDAY DEALS.” Is this poster, unwittingly, telling us to enter the store and “steal” what we like?

This utterly counterintuitive way of interpreting Wet Seal’s advertisement is based on Fredric Jameson’s seminal essay, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” published in Social Text in 1979. In this essay, Jameson argues that if something is popular (in this case Wet Seal clothing), and, if we are not brainless automatons, then mass culture must offer something positive to go with whatever repression it is handing out.

Jameson calls this the “fantasy bribe.” He argues that “all contemporary works of art—whether those of high culture and modernism or of mass culture and commercial culture—have as their underlying impulse….our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived.” And what it is that mass culture offers, Jameson asks? “Some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity.”

I am not suggesting that the Wet Seal advertisement injects the revolutionary spirit of the Russian intelligentsia directly into the brain of the mall zombie. But, perhaps unconsciously, Wet Seal is using some revolutionary zeal to sell its products because it knows that many of us crave collectivity and a better world—fairness, equality, jobs for all—the kind of world represented by Soviet idealism (though not necessarily Soviet society)—in the 1920s.

In the last few months we have seen hundreds of protests against low wages, targeting Walmart and fast food corporations, involving thousands of workers and labor leaders, suggesting that our “ineradicable drive” towards collectivity is not just a fantasy. Somewhere, buried deep in the capitalist unconscious is its opposite—radical socially conscious revolution. And sometimes we run across it at the mall.

So keep your eyes open this holiday season. Who knows what other revolutionary messages are hiding out in our cathedrals of consumption?

Kathy M. Newman

All in for Inequality for All

Two months ago I learned about the film Inequality for All when I saw a friend’s post about it on facebook. I rushed to the film’s website to find out when it was coming to Pittsburgh. But alas, there was no plan to bring it here. There was hope, however: I could submit a proposal to host a community screening. I would have to find money to pay the film’s licensing fee, but then I could show the film for free. I booked Carnegie Mellon University’s largest auditorium and started poking around the university and the city for co-sponsors. Now, I am proud to offer this invitation: please join us on Monday, November 18, at 6:15 PM for a screening of Inequality for All free and open to the public in McConomy Auditorium. Come early to meet some of the leaders of the Pittsburgh income equality movement and eat some pizza at 5:15 PM.

I organized this screening for three reasons. First, I wanted Inequality for All to be the coming out party for a new network of academics and activists in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Collaborative for Working-Class Studies. We came together this summer after a rousing session at the Working-Class Studies Association conference in Madison, WI in which Michael Zweig called for everyone in the room to return home and start centers for working-class studies. More than 40 people attended our inaugural meeting in Pittsburgh, most of them PhD students! You can join us and see what we are up to on facebook until we get a proper website.

Second, I wanted to work with other groups in Pittsburgh who have been making income inequality their central issue. Chief among these is the Make it Our UPMC campaign, which has been working for several years to pressure the region’s largest health care provider, UPMC, into being a better citizen of the city and into ending its union busting tactics and policies. Make it Our UPMC is the largest community sponsor of the film, and we will be passing the hat to support laid off UPMC workers at the screening. We are also working with the Thomas Merton center, a beacon of progressive activism in Pittsburgh, and the coalition for Great Public Schools, which recently issued a report that includes information about how income inequality is hurting K-12 students in Pittsburgh.

Finally, I wanted to bring college students, academics, activists and union members together in one room to talk about how inequality nationwide is playing out in Pittsburgh. According to Inequality for All, nearly one half of all Americans have zero wealth—no savings, no assets that outweigh their debts, no retirements savings or investments. Here in Pittsburgh, 12% of the population is living at or below poverty—an increase of 8.5% since the Great Recession of 2007. Pittsburgh children have been especially hard hit. A recent report shows that the number of homeless children in Pennsylvania has risen by 7% in the last year, from 18,531 to 19,905. Race is also a discouraging part of inequality in Pittsburgh. Compared with similarly sized cities, Pittsburgh is #1 in income inequality among African Americans.

Inequality for All is explicitly designed to help groups like mine have this conversation. It is organized like an economics lecture—in fact much of it is drawn from Robert Reich’s economics lectures at UC Berkeley—only it is the funniest, most movingly human economics lecture you have ever attended. Using well-designed info graphics, Reich’s own drawings (who knew he was an able cartoonist?), interviews with real workers, and a soundtrack that swells at all the right moments, Inequality for All has moved many an audience to laugh and cry. But Robert Reich and the film’s director Jacob Kornbluth want you to turn your laughter and tears into action. Their website gives three concrete ways for citizens to get involved in movements for greater equality, focusing on living wage campaigns, protecting and promoting unions, and investing in education.

For the most part, Inequality for All, which is being distributed by Hollywood’s powerful Weinstein company, has been embraced by the mainstream media. It won a U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at Sundance and has earned glowing reviews in The New York Times, USA Today, and Business Week as well as many progressive outlets. The film has opened in dozens of first run theaters across the country, and in some places activists have successfully lobbied their local theaters to show the film.

One more critical review, by John Lawrence of the San Diego Free Press, calls out Reich for not being radical enough, complaining that Reich is “basically a Keynsesian who would like taxes raised on the rich with the money spent to rebuild infrastructure thus providing middle class jobs.” Lawrence criticizes Reich for romanticizing the postwar period, during which  inequality in the U.S. was the lowest on record, but which was made possible by contingencies of global history that are not likely to repeat themselves. Lawrence further argues that Reich does not talk about economic democracy, the global cooperative movement, or public banking. Reich returns to education, and, especially college education, as the panacea, at a time when few things burden the middle class more than college debt.

Others complain that Inequality for All “preaches to the converted.” But as a wise mentor once told me, most preaching is to the converted. Preachers likely spend more time invigorating their members than they do making new converts.

Long a scholar of the ways in which the disempowered can use media to promote social change, I have rarely seen a mainstream media product with this radical of a message, in this appealing of a package. If you haven’t seen it, go see it. If it is not in your city, get it to come there. This film is a unique opportunity to have a conversation about real social and economic change. Inequality for All might convert a few, but, more importantly, it will give strength to all of us who are on the front lines of reversing income disparity in the U.S. and beyond.

Kathy M. Newman

Playing the Union Card: A Big Emmy Win for Netflix’s House of Cards

Some were disappointed when last week Netflix earned only a single “major” Emmy (for Best Director) for its first original series, House of Cards. But it took HBO five years to win its first Emmy, so Netflix’s win is a major accomplishment.

House of Cards is the first major attempt by a digital delivery service to create original programming. It is also an important notch on the career belt of a writer, Beau Willimon, who straddles the world of Greek tragedy and realpolitik. He has an MFA in playwrighting from Columbia, but he was also one of the original Howard Dean faithful and worked on campaigns for Charles Schumer and Bill Bradley. Willimon wrote a successful play about Washington politics in 2008, Farragut North, and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for the film version of the play, The Ides of March (2011).

House of Cards has relevance to those of us who are interested in working-class issues and who also enjoy high quality television for three reasons. The first is what the show has to tell us about Washington D.C. politics. Second, House of Cards is interested in modern day unions, and it portrays them with surprising sympathy. Third, the show engages with questions of contemporary education reform, which is newly in the spotlight this month with Diane Ravitch’s best-selling book on the subject, Reign of Error.

On the political front, as Michelle Dean argues in The Nation, House of Cards, with Congressman Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) as the centrifugal force of evil, plays into one of our “great myths of American culture: that the problems in its politics are fundamentally about individual morality.” Indeed, Underwood is amoral.  He believes that it is acceptable to murder when the creature in question (a dog or a person) is so pathetic that it doesn’t deserve to live. He manipulates a young reporter for sex, cheats on his wife (with her blessing, to an extent), engineers the downfall of a prospective Secretary of State (when Underwood himself is denied the position), leaks a draft of a bill to compromise its author, provokes the head of the teacher’s union to punch him so that he can accuse him of assaulting a Congress member, takes money from a large oil concern to help his wife’s charity, and the list goes on.

My only amendment to Dean’s argument is that House of Cards does hint that money lurks behind the individual amoral choices of an evil genius like Underwood. Corporations have candidates of both parties in a financial chokehold—or, as Frank Underwood puts it, with his trite homespinnery: ‘[W]hen the tit’s that big, everyone gets in line.” Everyone is corrupted by money and power, but Underwood is better than most at perpetuating his schemes—in figuring out who is weak, who is narcissistic, and who is stupid.

House of Cards is also surprisingly sympathetic to modern day unions. Early in the season we meet the rugged and sincere members of the Philadelphia shipbuilders union, who are proud that they sent one of their own—Congressman Peter Russo—to Washington. But Russo, snared in Underwood’s web, sells out his union brethren when he is ordered not to protest the closing of the shipyard that employs his friends and family. We are completely on their side when they beat the crap out of Russo when he comes to town seeking their continued support. We see how hard it is for working-class people to win via the ballot box—given the way that capital moves in the nation’s capitol.

House of Cards is even reasonably sympathetic to teachers’ unions, at a time (in real life) when teachers are under attack. The teachers come into the plot when Underwood is assigned the job of passing education legislation for the president, and the key elements of Underwood’s bill—performance standards, charter schools, and collective bargaining restrictions—send a (fictional) national teacher’s union out on strike.

In an unusual display of union solidarity, the teachers’ union convinces a group of unionized hotel workers to boycott Underwood’s wife’s charity banquet, and the Teamsters come out to protest Underwood in person. While Underwood is able to cool their ire with some plates of delicious barbeque, the appearance of a tri-union alliance, portrayed positively, in my “most popular now” queue on Netflix is not an everyday thing.

House of Cards gets much of the education reform story right. In Washington and across the country, education reformers from Arne Duncan to Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates speak from the same playbook—one that insists that the public schools are failing, especially in cities and poor communities, and that blames the failure on the schools themselves instead of on poverty, gun violence, and epic incarceration rates of black, brown and poor men.

While in House of Cards the only force fighting back against the bad education bill is the teachers’ union, in real life, a growing movement of parents, students and teachers are protesting the kinds of reforms that Frank Underwood is pushing his fictional DC. As Diane Ravitch explains in her new book, American schools are mostly succeeding, and, where they are not, poverty and segregation are the real causes.

If there are any idealistic heroes in House of Cards they are not activists but journalists. At the end of season 1 we see that Frank Underwood’s sexual conquest, the journalist-turned-blogger Zoey Barnes, might be the only outsider who has figured out Underwood’s nefarious long con that ends in the death of a fellow Congressman and the redemption (of sorts) of a high-end prostitute. House of Cards, despite its overwhelming cynicism, has a kernel of idealism. This is the idealism, perhaps, that drives most of us with a passion for writing, reading, and activism. And as long as we believe that we can make a difference—we just might be right.

Kathy M. Newman

Mad Men, Capitalism, and the Schizophrenia of Social Class

For most of the first five seasons of Mad Men, Don Draper, the super cool, super successful Madison Avenue creative director, has been something of a superhero, with the seemingly infinite ability to reinvent himself: in life, business and marriage. But in season six, which ended last month, Don Draper has been closer to the edge, as his tragic childhood has come back to haunt him, and, perhaps, to destroy him. He was born as Dick Whitman to a prostitute who died in childbirth. When Dick was ten, his father was killed by a horse that kicked him in the head. Dick was ultimately raised by his stepmother and an assortment of whores, hobos, and lowlifes.

Dick Whitman, while serving in Korea, swapped dog tags, and hence identity, with a dead soldier named Donald Draper, and started his life anew. In this act, he became the ultimate American, wiping the (tragic) slate clean and then moving up from used car salesman to fur salesman to copy writer to copy chief to adman god. And now he is unhappy, a double self, pathologically unfaithful to each of his wives, and, by the end of this season, unfaithful to his advertising partners as well. In one of the final scenes he loses the Hershey account when he tells a group of Hershey executives that as a child he was rewarded with a Hershey bar by a prostitute in return for pilfering money out of the pockets of the men who came to the brothel. “It was the only sweet thing in my life.”

As an advertising historian I’ve always been bothered by the Don Draper rags-to-riches plotline. The vast majority of admen of Draper’s generation were not only wealthy WASPS like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell, they were the sons of Episcopalian ministers. Jews, Italians, and other ethnic, working-class interlopers were successful in Hollywood and elsewhere in the culture industry. But the doxology of the advertising industry at mid-century was Protestantism, whiteness, and privilege.

Matthew Weiner has been a fanatic for verisimilitude when it comes to Mad Men, explaining in interviews how carefully he places period appropriate political events, songs, toys, and fashion in the historical timeline of the show. But no one, to my knowledge, has questioned whether or not someone with Dick Whitman’s impoverished and abusive upbringing could “pass” among the most elite members of American society and, eventually, become their conquering hero.
On the other hand it is always unsatisfying, and possibly a bit silly, to criticize a work of historical fiction for being inaccurate. Mad Men is much more about “us” than it is about “them.” So what can we learn by reading Mad Men as a parable about the present, rather than the past?

One African American critic, Steven Boone, has argued that Mad Men is Roots for white people. This is pretty astute. Mad Men has the highest percentage of viewers who make over $100,000 per year of any show on cable television—about 50% when the show debuted in 2007. Maybe we are looking for a mythology to justify our privilege and reassure ourselves that we have earned our elite status? Another interpretation reinforces this view. Another critic, Ron Ben Tovim, reads Mad Men as a new American classic in the tradition of Melville’s Moby Dick. According to this reading Dick Whitman is one part Moby Dick and one part Walt Whitman—an American superhero who creates himself out of the existential black hole of the Korean War. Of course, real life WWII and Korean War veterans had considerable help in moving up, from the GI bill, federal housing assistance, and veteran health benefits.

I would like to think that Don Draper’s morbid past as Dick Whitman appeals to viewers because it acknowledges that class inequality exists. Things are bleaker now in the US than ever before. While a real life Dick Whitman would have had about a 10% chance of making it into the super elite, today a child born in similar circumstances would have only a 5% chance of becoming Don Draper.  Perhaps we can read Mad Men as a commentary on today’s class inequality, which produces the schizophrenia of modern day capitalism. It seems clear that Don’s split personality is becoming less functional, and that he is teetering on the edge of a psychotic break.

But in the end, does Mad Men have a progressive message? Quite the contrary: the message of the show is that consumerism is the key to a better life, and audiences seem to respond. After AMC started airing Lincoln commercials during Mad Men, Ford sold “more Lincoln MKZ sedans in April than in the first three months of the year combined.” Over the last eighteen months, Banana Republic has been successfully marketing a line of Mad Men inspired clothing to its customers. Of course, only the show’s upscale demographic can afford the Banana Republic Mad Men Collection Tipped Shift Dress, now selling for $140.00 on Ebay—not to mention a brand new Lincoln MKZ.

Ironically, perhaps, most of us in the $100,000+ demographic of the show have not achieved the heights, penthouse included, of Mad Men’s most successful characters. At the end of the day most of us wish we could duck into a phone booth and come out wearing the grey flannel suits, shape wear, and sexy confidence of an era that exists only in the beautiful, twisted, and tragic imagination of Matthew Weiner and his fellow Mad Men creators. The world of Mad Men is ultimately a fiction—a fiction so compelling that we will have to wait one final season to learn the fate of the whorehouse foundling, Dick Whitman/Don Draper, and to find out what knit print is going to be all the rage at Banana Republic.

Kathy M. Newman